Thursday, October 09, 2014

Not Like Those Other Girls: Thoughts on Outlander

Even if we're not quite there, it feels as if we're on the verge of a golden age for televised novel adaptations.  For years, irate book fans responded to every bowdlerized, incoherent film adaptation of their favorite works by claiming that TV was the natural medium of book adaptations--the famous "miniseries on HBO" meme, which keeps cropping up despite the fact that there are so many other channels and content venues producing good material (and that HBO doesn't actually make that many miniseries).  But unlike British TV, which has never met a bestselling or classic novel it couldn't turn into a six-part mini, American TV has been slow to catch up, only reaching for novels as its source material if it could wring them of everything but their basic concept and turn them into a procedural.  Slowly but surely, however, this seems to be changing.  True Blood blazed the trail, and Game of Thrones's mega-success proved that there was gold in them thar books, and now all of a sudden we've got forthcoming series based on James S.A. Corey's Expanse series, on Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy, and four John Scalzi novels optioned for television.  What's interesting is how often these adaptations work as a means of bringing genre to a television market that's normally averse to it, whether it's urban fantasy, epic fantasy, science fiction, or YA (on shows like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars).  You could even claim True Detective as a not-so-distant outlier to this trend, since the show's first season was written by a novelist and shares many of the themes of his novels, and carried the overt influences of several horror writers.

And now, with Starz's Outlander, whose first season went on hiatus last week, we have what might be the first Romance television series on a general-interest channel.  Based on the series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander is the story of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), an English battlefield nurse who, in 1945, takes a second honeymoon in Scotland with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), as a way of reconnecting after the long separation of the war.  While exploring some standing stones said to possess mystical properties, Claire is transported to 1743, to the middle of a pitched battle between the local Scottish landowners and the forces of the English king.  Brought to the castle of the local laird, Colum MacKenzie (Gary Lewis), Claire soon makes herself so useful with her advanced medical knowledge that he refuses to allow her to leave, and his brother Dougal (Graham McTavish) involves her in his plot to raise money for a rebellion on behalf of the Stuart dynasty.  Claire also catches the eye of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a dreamy fugitive from English justice, and of Black Jack Randall (Menzies again), her husband's sadistic ancestor, an officer in the King's forces.

It's important, when watching Outlander, to take it on its own terms.  As science fiction fans, for example, we might expect the series to explore the implications of its central conceit, the fact that Claire has traveled through time.  Can she, for example, change the future?  And if so, should she--we've already, for example, seen Frank, a historian, tell Claire that Dougal's rebellion is doomed to failure, and that in a few years the clans will lose a disastrous battle that will effectively spell the end for Scottish self-rule, so should Claire try to save her new friends from this fate?  Outlander seems to have no interest in these questions.  The time travel McGuffin is used to bring Claire to the past (and will presumably be used to return her to her own time when the story is over), but it isn't discussed when she's there.  We're apparently not meant to wonder why Claire, in particular, was chosen for this adventure, or how the magic of the stones works.  Time travel jumpstarts the story, but isn't part of it.

Similarly, if you're looking for a serious handling of the show's historical setting, Outlander is not for you.  The show is hopelessly caught up in a romanticized, Braveheart-esque conception of the Scottish-English dispute, seeing the former as brave freedom-fighters--not aristocrats trying to enthrone a sympathetic king--and depicting the latter as sadistic colonizers for whom no atrocity against the local population is too heinous (there has been a semi-serious suggestion that the reason the show hasn't yet been purchased by a UK TV channel was so as not to inflame Scottish nationalistic feeling before last month's independence referendum).

What Outlander is, undeniably and unabashedly, is a work of genre romance--the story of a woman's overwrought, melodramatic journey towards passion in the arms of a rugged, adoring man.  This is a series that dedicates an entire episode to Claire and Jamie's wedding (they have been forced to marry in order to protect Claire from Black Jack, a classic romance trope), and specifically their wedding night.  The tropes of the romance genre--the marriage of convenience that leads to real passion, the men who all fall in immediate lust with our heroine, the frequent threats to her wellbeing from which she's rescued by her handsome love interest--are what drives Outlander's plot, and the most important character arc for Claire is the realization that she is in love with two men, which will undoubtedly lead up to an agonizing choice between staying in the past with Jamie and returning to the present and Frank.

It should be said that, as a romance, Outlander has some, or rather two, crucial problems.  They are: Frank and Jamie.  Menzies has always been an excellent performer, and when Outlander gives him the opportunity he invariably steals the show.  He's a lot of fun as Black Jack Randall, and the only actor who manages to make a real, three-dimensional person out of the rather overheated, cliché-ridden dialogue given to the 18th century characters--a scene in the season's sixth episode, "The Garrison Commander," in which he reminisces about flogging a Scottish criminal (who is, of course, Jamie) with mingled disgust and excitement almost instantly makes him the series's most magnetic character.  But while the television medium allows Outlander to keep Menzies on our screens in a double role, his skills as an actor mean that we're never tempted to mistake Black Jack for Frank, nor does Claire's love for her husband infect her disgust at his ancestor.  This means that Frank remains more an idea than a person, and more importantly, that his relationship with Claire never leaps off the screen in a way that justifies Claire's devotion to him.  Though the show deviates from the book by showing us flashbacks of Frank and Claire's relationship, and returning to 1945 to explore his growing despair as he searches for her, in none of these scenes do the actors have enough chemistry to convince us that we're seeing a great love.

Heughan, meanwhile, has great chemistry with Balfe, and not much else.  Jamie is meant to be young (I think, perhaps, a bit younger than the actor playing him, and certainly younger than Claire, though Heughan and Balfe are only a year apart) and inexperienced--the show makes much of the fact that he's a virgin who needs Claire's guidance in the bedroom.  But even taking that into account, the character is surprisingly blank.  There doesn't seem to be much between him and Claire except attraction and his puppyish devotion to her--which is not nothing, of course, but also not a love story for the ages.

What makes Outlander work despite--or perhaps even because of--the thinness of its two love interests is Claire herself.  Genre romance, after all, is often less a love story between two equally complex people as it is the story of the gratification of its heroine's desires.  That Frank and Jamie's devotion to Claire isn't terribly convincing isn't a flaw in the show because they are not the point of the story, she is.  And Claire herself is an engaging, frequently complex and occasionally unlikable figure.  She's stubborn, a little overfond of drink, and frequently too pleased with her own cleverness.  She is also, however, intelligent, inquisitive, and game for pretty much everything (something that I wish the show made more of is the fact that Claire has just come back from war--where, incidentally, she saw death on a scale that would make any of the manly warriors around her quake in their boots--and would thus be a great deal more accustomed to hardship and sudden changes in her circumstances than just your average 20th century woman).  Outlander is the story is Claire plowing through the obstacles set before her--Colum's imprisonment of her, Dougal's conviction that she is a spy for the English, Black Jack's conviction that she is a spy for the Scots, her own growing attachment to Jamie--in her efforts to get back to the standing stones and (as she believes) her own time.  That she frequently falls flat on her face due to her limited power and even more limited understanding of the situation she's landed in is what makes her human.  That she immediately picks herself up and tries again is what makes her heroic, and her story worth watching.

It also may be why Outlander has been so quickly hailed, by so many TV critics, as a work of feminist storytelling.  To be sure, there aren't so many stories about women on our screens that a new one isn't worth celebrating, and especially one that is so proud of its genre, and of its preoccupation with female desire and the female gaze.  Much has been made of the fact that Claire enjoys sex and has an active sex-drive, and is unabashed about instructing her lovers in how best to please her (a scene in the premiere episode in which she requests and receives oral sex from Frank has been particularly celebrated, and though I think this is less unusual than some commentators seems to believe--The Good Wife did it several years ago--it's certainly not commonplace).  Claire's own desire is reflected in the show's shooting, and in the way it stages its love interests, Jamie especially, in a way that allows her, and the audience, to appreciate their physique.  That episode-long wedding night is quite clearly designed to be erotic to female viewers (or, perhaps, to viewers who are attracted to men), with many lingering shots of Jamie's nakedness, and of Claire's pleasure in looking at and having him.

This is all, obviously, both admirable and sadly rare, and I agree that Outlander should be lauded for its emphasis in this arena.  But still I balk at calling the show feminist and am surprised that it has been embraced as such.  Or, to be more precise, Outlander's feminism seems to me like what I thought feminism was when I was a young teen (which is, coincidentally or not, around the time that the books were first appearing)--the means for the self-actualization of a single, usually quite privileged, woman.  The stories I read at that age were usually about a single, remarkable girl who bucked the insistence that she couldn't do things because of her gender, and whose specialness was often signified by a disdain for girly things such as makeup or sighing over boys.  Her success was achieved not by toppling the system that discriminated against her, but by being the exception to that rule, gaining the admiration of men and the love of one particularly hunky and special one.  Outlander is not quite that egregious--Claire does form relationships with women (though these mostly disappear after the series's first few episodes), and as noted, the show's emphasis is on the girly subject of romance--but it is nevertheless the story of a woman who is unique, who wins love and respect by not being like those other girls.

Take, for example, the series's disinterest in exploring its premise.  For a long while, I couldn't understand why time travel was even necessary to the story.  When Claire arrives at Castle Leoch, she makes up a story about being an English widow who has lost her belongings and servants, but this could just as easily have been the truth.  There's nothing in Claire's story--not her knowledge of medicinal plants, nor the fact that she has a living husband--that couldn't have worked just as well if she were not a woman out of time.  As the season draws on, it becomes clear that Outlander is using Claire's temporal displacement as an explanation for her independence, and unwillingness to be governed be the men around her.  Claire, we're told, is a "modern" woman, and thus fundamentally different from her foremothers--"Welcome to the 20th century!" she brightly tells Frank when he marvels at the fact that she's going off to the front while he, an intelligence officer, is staying behind in the relative safety of London.  This is not an unusual approach for the kind of feminist fiction I read as a girl, and it's one that treats feminism as purely an individual process, not a reaction against social forces--as if, in the 18th century, there were no women who were strong-willed and determined to be treated with respect, and as if the only thing a woman who did possess those qualities needed to do in order to be given her equal rights in this period was to demand them.  (It's interesting to compare Outlander with Octavia Butler's novel Kindred, another story about a woman who is whisked to the past, and an uncomfortable romantic relationship, by a time travel McGuffin.  Like Claire, Kindred's Dana is strong and keenly aware of her own worth, but these traits do nothing to protect her when she finds herself a black woman in the slave-holding, antebellum South.  The system that perceives her as less than human doesn't care that Dana disagrees, and rather than bending that system to her will, Dana is so oppressed by its dehumanization of her that she begins to buy into it.)

One of the effects of being so caught up in second-wave ideas of what constitutes feminism is that Outlander has almost zero intersectional awareness.  So Claire is insistent on being treated with respect despite her gender, but has no problem with being waited on hand and foot by other, lower-class women.  Admittedly, this is a pitfall that a woman from 1945--even a feminist--would be likely to fall into, but the show seems equally unconcerned with these women, depicting them as happy servants, who genuinely have no greater concerns in life than to worry about Claire's drama.  Claire thoughtlessly expects to be treated like a lady, and the narrative so thoroughly shares that assumption that when she momentarily steps down from that role and joins a group of village women who are beating wool, it's treated as a lark, a bit of noblesse oblige, rather than the reality of life for most women around Claire, and something that could have easily been her lot too.

One of the interesting ways in which Outlander expresses its blindness towards class is Claire's clothing.  She arrives in Castle Leoch in a ragged (and period-inappropriate) dress, and is immediately given something to wear by the kindly, maternal housekeeper Mrs. Fitzgibbons (Annette Badland).  But as her stay in the castle draws on, Claire's dresses grow finer and finer, and are accessorized with jewelry.  Another story might have made something of this point--that Colum, eager to make Claire forget that she is a prisoner, was showering her with fine gowns and jewelry, thus precipitating a conflict between a thoroughly understandable love of nice things (especially for a nurse who has spent five years in blood-soaked uniforms), and Claire's desire not to become too comfortable in captivity.  But the kind of story that Outlander is can't allow its heroine to be vain, or to care about pretty dresses--that's the kind of girly affectation that she's supposed to be better than.  So the fact Claire walks around in fur-trimmed cloaks is treated as something that just happens, rather than a function of her newfound social class.  (Another interesting point of comparison here is The Hunger Games, which in many ways is a modernization of the kind of Special Girl stories I read as a girl.  Like Claire and the heroines of those stories, Katniss is beautiful but too sensible to care about her beauty, but unlike Gabaldon, Suzanne Collins doesn't pretend that that beauty is something that just occurs.  Attention is paid to the teams of stylists who work to make Katniss stunning, to the political implications of allowing them to make her over, and to the statements they and she make with their fashion choices.)

But perhaps the biggest problem I have with dubbing Outlander a feminist show is the simple fact that, in a mere eight episodes, it has unseated all other claimants--including Game of Thrones, the previous and seemingly unbeatable champion--for the title of the rapeyest show on TV.  There is scarcely a single episode in the show's already-screened half-season in which Claire is not subjected to some form of sexual violence, and more often than not these are brutal, graphic attempted rapes.  Very nearly the first thing that happens to her in the 18th century is that Black Jack tries to rapes her, and the fall season ended with him tearing her clothes off and bending her over a table, only for Jamie to charge to her rescue.  In the interim, Claire suffers sexual violence from people as disparate as Dougal (who veers from wanting to kill her, to trying to rape her, to becoming her ally, to developing romantic feelings for her), random men at Castle Leoch, and deserting English soldiers, not to mention lots of lewd comments and sexual harassment from the show's minor (and generally positive) characters.

On its own, this isn't necessarily a bad thing (unless you're sensitive to graphic depictions of sexual violence, in which case stay the hell away from this show).  I don't want to say that Outlander's depiction of 18th century Scotland as a rape free-for-all is realistic, because I have no way of knowing if that's true and anyway historical realism isn't this show's primary concern.  But the show does take the prevalence of sexual violence, and the culture that these imply, a lot more seriously than other rape-happy entertainments.  It allows Claire to be angry about what happened to her and to insist on its illegitimacy, and forces the men around her--who don't approve of rape but clearly don't think that preventing it should be their top priority--to take a side on the matter.  When Jamie tells Claire, in the second episode, that no harm will come to her so long as she's around him, she immediately asks "What about when you're not around?" reminding him and us that what's important here is her safety, not his machismo.

That attitude fades, however, as the season draws on and as rape starts being used not as a way of teaching us about Claire, but as a way of putting her and Jamie together, and making him look good.  In the fifth episode, "Rent," Claire finds Jamie sleeping outside her room in an inn where they're been collecting taxes for Colum.  He explains that the men downstairs have become rambunctious and he was worried that they'd come up to Claire's room.  Most women would consider "there was a non-zero probability that you'd be gang-raped tonight" a major turn-off, but Claire, and the episode's, focus is not on how horrible this situation is, but on how chivalrous Jamie is being in protecting Claire from it.  By the season's end, in which the horrifying brutality of Black Jack's final attack seems to exist solely to make Jamie look like more of a hero when he sweeps in and stops it, it's clear that rape, and being rescued from it, is practically a form of foreplay for these two.  Nor is Claire ever allowed to experience trauma or anxiety from her repeated assaults.  On the one occasion that she reacts like a normal person to almost being raped, wandering around in torn clothes and muttering to herself immediately after the attack, and then withdrawing emotionally from Jamie and treating him with abruptness, we're told that the real reason she's angry isn't that she's once again very nearly been violated, but having allowed herself to become comfortable in the past, forgetting her mission to get back to Frank.

Finally, there is something increasingly odd and disturbing about how often Claire is almost raped.  I don't mean to say this as a complaint, and I'm certainly not wishing for the deed to be done.  But every time that Claire ends up on her back with her clothes torn, only to be saved before penetration, only serves to reinforce the feeling that Outlander cares about rape only inasmuch as it increases the drama of Claire's story, but that actually raping her would make her ineligible to be its heroine.  That impression is reinforced by the fact that the only victim of completed rape in the series's--Jamie's sister, who lets Black Jack have his way with her to keep him from killing her brother--is never seen or heard about after her assault.  It's one thing to say--as Outlander does, repeatedly--that rape is horrible.  It's quite another to acknowledge that women can go on with their lives after being raped, and that rape can be only a part of their story, and this Outlander does not seem willing to do.

I feel a little embarrassed to come to the end of this litany of faults and admit that, despite all of them, I still find Outlander strangely watchable and appealing.  A lot of this is down to Claire herself, who for all that she is a romance heroine in a romance story, is still an appealing, human figure.  Much like Game of Thrones, there's a lot of force in simply wanting to know what happens next in her story, even if the characters and setting around her are less interesting.  And then there's the simple fact that Outlander is unique--a story about a woman that is both an adventure and a romance, and also a bit of pulpy fun that you don't have to take too seriously.  If TV executives take from the show's success the lesson that female-led stories, and romances, are worth making, then maybe the show's flaws are worth forgiving.  But I hope that the next Outlander--maybe the next book adaptation about a woman--has a broader sense of what it means to be feminist.  That isn't simply the story of a woman, but the story of women.

8 comments:

Kate Nepveu said...

Believe it or not, I actually don't remember the first book being as focused on sexual violence toward women as later books are . . .

The books really do not bear close examination in a lot of ways, yet for a long time they were, to paraphrase a friend, dipped in some addictive substance--likely in part because of the fairly simplistic fantasy of female empowerment you identify, and also the sheer id-tastic hurt/comfortness of them. I haven't read the latest yet, partly because of time, partly because I'm starting to grow weary of the endless phase the series seems stuck in, and possibly partly because my id and Gabaldon's are parting company (much like mine & Bujold's, come to think of it).

Which is a long way of saying that the series does sound faithful to the books in that sense.

Foxessa said...

I would mention several very successful book adaptations for television that were not HBO. Indeed, on network televison: Roots (1977), ABC; Winds of War (1978), ABC; Shogun (1980), on NBC. And many more from best sellers such as Colleen McCullough, Daniel Steele, Irwin Shaw and many others. The late 1970's, due to the phenomenon that was the televised Roots, and the 1980's were a golden age -- on network tv -- for successful television adapted mini series from best selling novels.

Not to mention Frank Herbert's Dune on what wasn't then the SyFy Channel back in 2000 - 2003. I love this adaptation. Not everyone did though.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

The first comment, that Outlander was the bible of hurt-comfort is one I've made as well. I loved Outlander when I read it. I was working at the publishing house that put it out at the time. But I liked the following volumes less and less and quit reading them after about the third one.

I've liked the television adaptation quite a bit. Perhaps it's the actors -- Caitriona Balfe is so alive and vital. If they hadn't found just the right actress to inhabit Claire this would never have worked no matter how stunning the location shots.

Very different from the Starz The White Queen (2013) -- if you want romance. Phillipa Gregory writes romance in velvet gowns for sure. It just didn't seem alive though, whether as a novel or on screen. Outlander, for all its faults as a novel, leaps off the page into life.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

I would like to add that in terms of rape, things change dramatically in the second half. And not everything one thinks happened, happened, or at least not as some of the characters believe.

As well, with the torture - comfort meme that emerged in the 90's as so very popular with female fantasy writers -- and particularly with pairing that with a gay male pair -- accompanying this necessarily are explorations in the tropes of bdsm -- and Black Jack Randall is a sadist.

As you say, this is a romance, and a romance of a certain sort, which was quite new when it was written and published, at least for the generations that discovered this in Outlander, or so it seemed to me.

Additionally, feminist or not, we can find pleasure in works that feature women and their own gaze for themselves and for attractive men -- without the work being feminist in intent, can't we?

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

Ooo -- forgot two of the biggest blockbust best sellers also turned into television miniseries: Lonesome Dove (1989) on CBS, and Mists of Avalon (2001), on TNT. Mists of Avalon's protagonist Morgaine was played by Julia Marguiles, who is the center of The Good Wife.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kate:

One thing I didn't get around to mentioning here is that the show's premise doesn't seem to lend itself to a particularly long story. At some point Claire will have to choose between Frank and Jamie, and it will very quickly become the case that prolonging that choice will drain the show of most of its energy - at least so long as the choice between her two lovers is Claire's sole driving force. As I understand it, that's become the problem with the sequels, so I'm really wondering what the show is going to do about it.

Foxessa:

As you say, miniseries adapted from books used to be big business in American TV, but that's not really the case anymore. Roots is the ur-example people give of the sort of TV that just isn't made that often in the US, and even the more recent examples you give are more than a decade old. Plus, most of the examples I've cited are intended as multi-season series, in some cases perhaps even open-ended, which is a slightly different business model.

we can find pleasure in works that feature women and their own gaze for themselves and for attractive men -- without the work being feminist in intent

Yes, but that would require acknowledging that gap, which most critics praising Outlander have not done. I'm seeing a lot more essays calling the show feminist because of its embrace of the female gaze, which I don't quite agree with.

Kate Nepveu said...

so long as the choice between her two lovers is Claire's sole driving force. As I understand it, that's become the problem with the sequels

No, that's not correct. The books are . . . is "family saga" actually a genre or something I made up? Anyway. They're not focused on a single plot or arc. Which poses its own issues, to be sure.

(The endless phase I referred to was a particular historical period that I don't find interesting the way Gabaldon writes about it.)

Marielle Green said...
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